What to say about northern Chile? Start with the obvious I suppose. It is big. Very, very big. A vast, seemingly endless dust filled land without life. This is the home of the Atacama Desert which stretches for more than 1000km south from the Peruvian border, stretching the imagination and warping perception as you drive through it…and after eight days of driving through it I won’t be too upset if I never see sand again.
The Atacama is whipped by high winds and searing temperatures, stirring up dust devils thirty or forty feet high and creating a heat haze that tricks the mind and disorients the senses. It ranks equal first with the Sahara Desert as the least green place I’ve ever been. You can drive for hours without seeing a living thing – not a plant, not an animal, and, apart from the huge trucks thundering up and down the Ruta 5 highway, very few signs of human existence.
Winding its way through this parched and desolate terrain (parts of which never receive rain) the Ruta 5, which has to be one of the world’s more improbable roads, is a two lane ribbon of human endeavour connecting pinpoints of civilization amidst the Atacama’s sun-bleached, post-apocalyptic landscape.
To the west the Atacama drops sharply to the edge of the turquoise waters and white sand beaches of the Pacific Ocean; to the east it rises dramatically to the barren high altitude of the Andes which shelter herds of vicuna and guanaco, azure mineral-laden lakes and blindingly white salt flats. What it lacks in life it more than compensates for in geography.
Although the distances are huge and the landscape uniformly barren, dotted throughout the region are dozens of mines (Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, plus numerous other minerals and metals), the occasional oasis village where underground water comes to the surface to add a blaze of green to the brown landscape and the occasional, slightly freaky sighting of a train.
The most bizarre sight in the whole Atacama Desert must be its one piece of public art just south of Antofagasta. The Mano del Desierto (hand of the desert) by Chilean sculptor Mario Irarrázabal sits atop a small hill a few hundred metres off the Ruta 5; at 11 metres high you can see it several kilometres away as you drive south, a surreal sight shimmering in the heat haze defying you to doubt its existence.
It is easy to misjudge distances in the north of Chile, and everywhere takes longer to reach than you originally plan for or expect. Add poorly maintained or virtually non-existent roads and time seems to warp even further.
Then there is the issue of road signage. The Ruta 5 is splattered along its length with road signs. Signs telling you there is a rest place approaching, signs warning of corners, signs advising when it is safe to overtake and when it isn’t. Missing from this signpost landscape are signs telling you how far it is to the next human settlement, the next gas station or the place you’re actually heading for. You can travel hundreds of kilometres before seeing one of these signs.
Visit the CONAF (National Parks) office in the lovely town of Copiapo and, while encouraging you to visit, they will warn you about the dangers of heading east across the desert into the remote Parque Nacional de Tres Cruces: there is no potable water, no centres of population, no mobile signal and very little passing traffic should you run into problems.
Take water, lots of water, food and extra diesel just in case the worst happens you’ll be advised. What they won’t tell you is that once inside the national park there is no signage or any distance markers. You just have to head down dusty dirt roads and hope you’re going in the right direction. We travelled for 100km on a road which we hoped was taking us out of the park back towards Copiapo, there wasn’t a single helpful road sign for the whole 100km.
Thankfully I’m not writing this from the small CONAF refugio that sits in the middle of the park; we made it back and headed for the coast for some beach time away from the Ruta 5 and away from all the dust.